With the government's announcement on sending the SAS to Afghanistan due any day, it's time to stop pretending. They will say yes. And John Key will be responsible for any deaths
John Key and his colleagues are going to send the Special Air Service to Afghanistan. The current talk about whether National should do so is, unfortunately, academic. The decision is already made.
The official position is that the Government is waiting for a departmental review to be completed before making a decision. This is a useful device for sparing Ministers the trouble of having to answer difficult questions until the decision is announced and the deployment becomes a fait accompli later this month.
The review, due to be presented to Cabinet either this coming Monday or next, is being done by an officials’ committee called the 'Afghanistan Reference Group', set up last year by the Labour-led Government. According to an August 2008 Cabinet paper, its job was to look at future 'peace-building' efforts in Afghanistan, and particularly Bamyan Province, including hopes for a 'gradual shift in emphasis from military to civilian and policing interventions'. The objective was a well thought out, long-term strategy for New Zealand involvement in Afghanistan. But these intentions are now history.
As soon as National announced that the US had requested New Zealand special forces for the war, in early April this year, the outcome of the review was inevitable. The review is now preparing the ground for the pre-determined decision and the Government's supposed careful weighing of the issues is window dressing.
Many of the decisions made by National in its first eight months have been about political image building for the new government and leader. In contrast, sending New Zealand war-fighting troops to the Afghanistan War is deadly serious — the kind of decision that has historic importance for the country and can indelibly affect the reputations of the politicians responsible. This will be Key's first major (and possibly biggest) foreign policy decision and he will be personally responsible for the consequences.
Is Key up to the decision? There is no evidence to suggest that he is. Nothing else he has done so far as National Party leader has been serious. His personal contribution to the international financial crisis, for example, was championing a $50 million cycle-way for tourists. His answer to child poverty was industry-sponsored muesli bars in schools. He is competent at playing politics but not at seriously addressing real issues.
What appears to drive our multi-millionaire Prime Minister is a strong but banal need for personal achievement. His personal slogan was being 'ambitious for New Zealand' but this sounded mostly like a reply to people who had noticed his painfully obvious ambition for himself. Straight after the 2005 election, with only three years experience in Parliament, he began a pushy campaign to become party leader. A caucus colleague at the time described him as "greedy for power". Underlying it was the superficiality that marks his leadership: no big ideas, no depth of policy understanding, just a wish for a very big job like his very big house. But war isn't a game.
The SAS were first sent to Afghanistan in 2001 in the shocked weeks after the September 11 attacks. They became part of the ill-conceived American revenge, where widespread killing and abuse by the US and its allies did not bring "justice" (or find Osama bin Laden) but instead sowed the seeds of ongoing violence. That first year of war at least had the excuse of searching for the 9/11 backers (although we now know bin Laden had left Afghanistan before the SAS arrived). By the 2004 and 2005 SAS deployments, bin Laden was long forgotten and New Zealand was now part of a civil war. I suspect that the military and/or government realised the futility (and increasing risks) of being part of this murky war and that is why the SAS wasn't sent in the following three years. Much better to put our small nation's resources into security, aid and reconstruction in one area (Bamyan Province) where we could hope to make a difference.
Now, as the actions of the Bush era are being exposed and the sad stream of dead young people is forcing a rethink in countries like Canada and Britain, along comes National. There is a simple reason why the SAS will be sent to Afghanistan later this year: it's what National Governments do. Key has no background at all in foreign policy and he will be blissfully unaware of the complexities of Afghanistan. When the US Secretary of State asked for more fighting troops to try to fix the mess the United States has made in Afghanistan, Key and his colleagues were always going to say yes.
Some of the Cabinet may be hawks, others may have cynical thoughts of buying trade concessions. But I think the main explanation is that these are people (Key, Murray McCully, Wayne Mapp) who don't understand or care much about the issues. Winning approval in Washington just seems like a good idea.
So let's be clear, in advance, about who will be most responsible.
If, as is likely, some decent young person like Willie Apiata is killed, fighting Afghan locals in a war neither he nor the government that sent him properly understands, John Key will be personally responsible.
When people recall that New Zealand had a constructive role in Bamyan but the National-Act Government wanted to join the fighting, John Key will be personally responsible.
And when the history is written that there was no intelligent strategy and certainly no 'exit strategy' behind sending the SAS, John Key will be personally responsible.
The timing is impeccably bad. Just as other governments (left and right) are reassessing the war and considering pulling back, National is going in. If it wasn't so serious (and other people's lives weren't at stake) it would serve them right for being shallow.